Saturday Love: Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis Detail The Making Of A Classic (Video)
Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis are my favorite producers of all-time. That’s saying a lot for a person who lives and breathes Hip-Hop and was a big enough Prince fan to believe it had to be him or them, given their well-documented music rivalry. Ironically, it was both Hip-Hop and Prince that introduced me to the sounds of Jam & Lewis. Growing up in the 80s, I was part of the first generation to come of age with Hip-Hop and the last to remember a time without it. Movies like Wild Style, Beat Street and Breakin’ were formative for me, so naturally, I had to see Krush Groove…in the theater. The soundtrack soon found itself in heavy rotation and, though it had songs like LL Cool J’s “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” Kurtis Blow’s “If I Ruled The World,” and The Fat Boys’ “All You Can Eat,” one of the standouts and most enduring songs was “Tender Love,” by The Force M.D.s. Beyond their soaring harmonies, it was the lush strings and beautiful arrangement of the song that made it timeless. At the time, I didn’t know it, but that was when I first fell in love with the music of Jimmy and Terry. Later on in life, I would learn that the seeds had already been planted with songs like Cheryl Lynn’s “Encore,” but it wasn’t until their split with The Time and Prince that their full powers were unveiled. Those prodigious talents were the subject of the latest Red Bull Music Academy Lecture, and it is extensive, even by that vehicle’s standard.
Coming in at over 2 hours and 30 minutes, Jam and Lewis touch on a number of subjects throughout their discussion with Chairman Mao, and even then, as Jimmy and an audience member discuss, it feels like they’ve only scratched the surface, by the end. With a catalog that includes Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, Usher, Mary J Blige, New Edition, Human League, Cherrelle, Alexander O’Neal, The S.O.S. Band, Luther Vandross, and so many more fantastic artists, it’s no wonder. After some interesting dialogue about the earliest day of their careers, the conversation turns to their first encounters with Prince (25:00). “I thought I was a pretty good keyboard player at that time, and then I met Prince,” said Jam. “I remember Prince could just play rings around me. Like it was a whole other thing that he had,” he continued. Then, recalling a school band that they joined together, Jam discussed when he realized the full extent of Prince’s talent. When the teacher asked Prince what he was going to play, Jam expected him to say keyboards, given what he’d seen of Prince on the keys. To his surprise, Prince said he would play guitar. “Prince starts playing the guitar solo from this song called “Make Me Smile,” by Chicago, and back in the day, that was like the quintessential guitar solo. If you were a guitar player, you needed to know that solo. And, he, note-for-note, just ripped it off. Killed it…So, I go to the bathroom. I hear somebody on the drums. I’m thinking it’s the band teacher on the drums. I come out, it’s Prince on the drums. I don’t even want to sit down behind the drums anymore…He was such a phenom.”
Jimmy and Terry proceed to describe the fierce competition that existed between their bands, Prince’s bands and others around Minneapolis, likening it to what was depicted in Purple Rain (29:46). “It was very competitive. If you’ve seen Purple Rain, the whole idea of Purple Rain is there’s one club. All the bands are trying to play the one club, and they’re like ‘they’re four bands, but I only got three slots.’ That was kind of the way we grew up. It was very competitive, but it was good for us, because it taught us that it doesn’t really matter how good you are, if you can’t, first of all find a place to play,” said Jimmy. When Mao notes that Jam & Lewis’ band, The Time, was the only band Prince said he was ever afraid of, Lewis responds with “And, rightfully so, because every night we tried to kick his ass.”
Fast-forwarding a bit, the two speak about the creation of Janet Jackson’s “That’s The Way Love Goes,” and it being one of the favorite records in their catalog. When asked why, Jam lists several reasons, starting with its roots in classic Hip-Hop samples (1:36:00). “For so many reasons. First of all, James Brown. Start with the James Brown sample, “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” one of my favorite James Brown songs ever. That’s the guitar part. You know, ‘The Vapors‘ (by Biz Markie), tons of songs have used it. So, that was number 1. ‘Impeach The President,’ which is the drum sample–just a classic drum sample. So, taking those two elements of Hip-Hop, and then thinking about putting chords over top of it and making an actual song out of it, with changes and that whole thing, with a vibe. That was the dream in my head. And, what happened was we were getting better as producers, at that point. And, what used to happen in the early days is we would have something in our mind, and it would come out totally different than what we thought, but it would still come out good. But, it would not be what we heard in our heads. This was one of the first records we did [where] what we heard in our head was exactly what came out.”
Despite the fact that they were finally able to fully translate their vision into reality, when Janet heard the track for the first time, she was apparently not that moved. “When Janet came to the studio later,” said Jam, “I put the track on. I said ‘Listen to this.’ I was all proud. And, she’s like ‘Yeah…it’s ok…let’s work on something else.'” It would not be until weeks later that Jackson would come back to the track. After returning from a vacation where she’d had a cassette with several tracks, including that one, Janet came back with a very different reaction. “She comes back to the studio, she walks in the door and she said ‘Oh my God! We gotta work on that track.’ And, I said ‘What track?’ ‘That track you gave me. Oh my god, that track! We gotta work on that track!’ I said, ‘What track are you talking about, Janet??’ ‘The track you gave me!! Oh my god!! And, she puts it on and I said, ‘The track you don’t like?!'”
During her vacation, Jackson had been playing the cassette with friends, strikingly similar to the opening scene in the song’s video, and after seeing their reactions to the track, it clicked for her. By 2am the night she had returned, Jackson had come up with the concept for the song’s theme, as well as the melodies. Once it was completed, Jam, Lewis and Janet agreed it would be the Janet album’s first single, but it would be challenged once again prior to its release. Prior to the creation of “That’s The Way Love Goes,” label executives had heard “If” and believed it was more in line with Jackson’s sound, and wanted it to be the first single. At the meeting to determine which song would lead off the album, Jackson also was swayed, but after someone at the label described “That’s The Way Love Goes” as “like some Sade shit. It’s like some shit where…You know how Sade, when she comes out with a record, there’s no big fanfare that she’s coming out with a record? It’s just, all of a sudden, you look up and somebody goes [places a cassette on the table] ‘Oh, what’s this? Oh! Sade record. Oh cool, let’s check this out!’ That’s that record.” After that, Janet said “‘That’s The Way Love Goes,’ you’re right.” And the rest, as they say, is history. The song would go on to be a smash.
There are dozens of stories like that throughout the lecture, but one that really sticks out is the duo’s detailing of the genesis of their classic “Saturday Love,” by Cherrelle featuring Alexander O’Neal. Like many Motown classics, the song has become a staple at weddings, BBQs and other such events, even 30 years after its 1985 release. Despite its beloved status, the song was almost scrapped before it was even recorded (1:08:30). While detailing the song’s genesis, Jam described the second thoughts he had about the ultra-catchy chorus. “In my mind, I started thinking ‘Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Satur-day Love,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, this is cool. This is great.’ So, then I went to the studio later. Terry was there. I said ‘Terry, I got this idea!’ He said ‘What is it?!,’ and I instantly thought ‘This is the dumbest idea ever.’ ‘How’s it go Jam?’ ‘Well…It’s sort of the days of the week [sings it sheepishly].'” Jam continues, “I’m thinking ‘This is Sesame Street. This is so stupid.'” After some encouragement from Terry, Jam played the song and Terry liked it, encouraging him that they should continue working on it. Still, even with the finished product, the duo was skeptical about the viability of the song. “In our minds, I don’t think we ever thought that it was that…I didn’t think it was that good. I just thought it was just something,” said Jimmy.
Since the two producers had already worked with both Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal, they thought it would be good to put the two of them together. While describing their performances, Jam notes that the lyrics in the first and second verses are exactly the same, but sound different because of what each singer brought to the song. It’s then that he reveals that the reason the verses repeat is because they never bothered to write a second verse, because they didn’t think much of the song. He laughs that now, when people look back on it, they go “wow, that was so genius,” but the reality is it was pure happenstance because they thought it was a throwaway record. After a laugh about that, Jimmy notes that the real magic in the record is the vocals of Cherrelle and Alex. Saying of O’Neal there’s “probably no more talented guy that they ever worked with,” he continues “to put them together, it was just cool. I think that’s what really makes this record work, is their chemistry together was amazing.”
If you are a Jam and Lewis fan, or just a student of great music and those who make it, there’s not a second of this interview that’s a waste of time.